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Donna Jo Napoli Biography
Donna Jo Napoli moonlights from her job as a professor of linguistics at a Pennsylvania college to write books for children and young adults. Her stories range from magical retellings of ancient or medieval folktales, like Zel and The Magic Circle, to realistic, emotionally wrenching tales of kids confronting divorce and death in their family, such as The Bravest Thing. An essay on her career in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers commended Napoli’s “belief in the ability of ordinary people to overcome and to survive.”
Lost home more than once
Napoli never planned to become a writer. Born in 1948, she grew up in an Italian American family in Miami, Florida, the youngest of four children. She suffered from an eye problem that was not diagnosed until she was ten, but once it was corrected, she became an avid reader. But there were still other challenges in her early life. “We had no books in the house,” she recalled in an interview published on the DownHomeBooks.com Web site. “My father bought the paper—but only to read the betting sheets and any news that might affect his chances to win bets.” In an article she wrote for Horn Book she revealed that her father was a compulsive gambler: “When he’d make money at work, he’d gamble it—sometimes completely away. Then we’d get kicked out of where we were living and my parents would fight and I’d go sit in a tree and read a book and live in the world I created inside my head.”
Napoli was a talented student in her teens, and was accepted at Harvard University. During her first year there she took a required composition class, which had one fiction assignment. After her professor read the assignment, she suggested that Napoli could pursue a career as a novelist. “I decided then and there never to take another English course,” she wrote in the Horn Book article. “I simply was not going to be lured into a vocation that was so financially unstable.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in mathematics, Napoli decided to study Romance languages in graduate school. These are Italian, French, Spanish, and other languages descended from Latin. She went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard in 1973. She also spent a year studying linguistics, which is the scientific study of languages and their structure, sounds, meanings, and relation to human culture. During her college years she married and began a family that would eventually number five children.
“I try hard to give my readers other places—to let them experience via my stories cultures and lands that they might not be able to experience otherwise—to give them what I sought in books.”
Math trained her to write
Napoli spent the next dozen years living and working in a number of college towns, from Northampton, Massachusetts, to Ann Arbor, Michigan. She became a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1987, and also served as chair of its linguistics department. She is the author of five books in her professional field. Her first book for children, The Hero of Barletta, was published in 1988. Its story is based on an Italian folktale about a giant who works to save the village where he lives from an invading army. But Napoli’s second career as a writer did not come about quickly. “I spent fourteen long years gathering letters of rejection before an editor finally bought one of my stories,” she noted in the Horn Book article. Her early training in mathematics had served her well, she believed. “To do math problems, you have to focus and work and work…. So mathematics teaches persistence. And there may be no more important quality for a writer than persistence.”
Napoli only turned to writing fiction as a second job after she experienced a personal loss. For months afterward she exchanged letters with a friend, who came to her a year later, letters in hand, and suggested they would make a terrific novel. “That’s when I realized I really love to write,” Napoli told an audience of young readers, according to Winston-Salem Journal reporter Kim Underwood. Not surprisingly, many of her books deal with a loss or challenge, and often feature characters who are coming to terms with a change or disruption in their lives. Soccer Shock was one of Napoli’s more fantastical early works. It was also her first children’s story that was not a folktale retold. Its hero is Adam, a ten-year-old who is jolted by an electric shock. As a result, his freckles now talk to him, and Adam tries to use his newfound power to become the winning athlete on his soccer team. Napoli wrote two other novels in which Adam confronts various challenges, Shark Shock and Shelley Shock.
Napoli’s Major Works for Young Adults
The Magic Circle, Dutton, 1993.
Zel, Dutton/Penguin, 1996.
Song of the Magdalene, Scholastic, 1996.
Stones in Water, Dutton/Penguin, 1997.
Sirena, Scholastic, 1998.
Crazy Jack, Delacorte, 1999.
Beast, Simon and Schuster/Atheneum, 2000.
Three Days, Dutton, 2001.
Daughter of Venice, Random/Wendy Lamb Books, 2002.
Breath, Simon and Schuster/Atheneum, 2003.
The Great God Pan, Random/Wendy Lamb Books, 2003.
Overcoming phobias was the theme of Napoli’s 1994 book When the Water Closes Over My Head. Mikey, age nine, is terrified of taking swimming lessons, and his older sister teases him about it, but he eventually learns to overcome his fear. Booklist ‘s Hazel Rochman liked the fact that Napoli’s characters debunked gender stereotypes—Mikey cooks better than his sister, and his little brother likes to play dress-up. When their grandmother disapproves, Mikey defends his brother. Rochman also noted the way Napoli had the characters interact at several levels, where they “bicker about breakfast cereal and also confront elemental issues of grief and rivalry and love.”
Napoli also wrote about a young man with agoraphobia, or the fear of leaving one’s home. The title character in Albert struggles to leave the house day after day, but is unable to do so. One day he sticks his hand out of the window to check the weather, and a bird begins building a nest for her eggs in it. Now he has to remain at the window day after day, but in the process he begins to observe the world outside. When the eggs hatch and the birds leave their nest, Albert realizes he, too, is ready to leave and explore the world.
Her favorite book
Napoli has said that The Bravest Thing, one of her books for readers age eight to eleven, is her favorite among the works she has authored. The story deals with multiple sorrows: ten-year-old Laurel has a pet rabbit named Bun Bun who has a litter, but Bun Bun refuses to nurse her babies and they die. Laurel decides to mate her again, and the same thing happens. In the meantime, Laurel also learns her beloved aunt has cancer, and that she herself has scoliosis, or a curvature of the spine that will require her to wear a brace. Napoli’s handling of the difficult subject matter, noted a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, “inspires the reader to believe that obstacles, no matter how daunting, can be made smaller through courage.”
Napoli’s five children often provided story ideas in an indirect way. One of her daughters, Eva, once asked her mother during a readaloud moment why there were so many mean women in fairy tales. The question prompted Napoli to write The Magic Circle, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. It is also the first of her books directed at young adult readers. In the original tale, two children are abandoned in the forest on the orders of their stepmother during a time of starvation in the land. They become lost but discover a delightful house made of candy. An elderly woman lures them in and feeds them lavishly, but then plans to bake them in an oven and eat them. In Napoli’s story, the dreadful witch had once been a respected midwife and healer, but was condemned as a witch by her community during a wave of religious fervor in late 1600s Germany. She made a deal with the dark forces in order to save her daughter, but was tricked by them and now must live a solitary forest life. The Magic Circle was named Best Book of the Year in a 1993 Publisher’s Weekly round-up, and won several other awards as well.
Besieged medieval village
A summer spent working on a farm when her children were very young inspired some of the plot of Breath, Napoli’s 2003 novel for young adults. The story’s kernel, however, is another reworking of a classic fairy tale. In this case, the fairy tale was based on a real event: in 1284, bothered by a rat infestation, the town of Hameln, Germany, paid a musician to lead the vermin away. When the city then refused to pay the piper the money he was due, he led the town’s children away, too. Napoli read about Hameln and was intrigued by the idea that the town may have experienced a bout of ergot poisoning at the time. Ergot infests stores of rye and other grains, and causes stillborn children, hallucinations, bouts of twitching, and livestock deaths. Modern historians believe the ergot poisonings brought on the odd behavior that incited witch hunts in many places throughout the ages.
Breath is narrated by Salz, a twelve-year-old boy who has cystic fibrosis. This is a genetic disorder that causes the lungs to fill with mucus; it has no cure and only in modern times did its sufferers live to reach adulthood. Napoli based her character on an old version of the tale, in which one boy does not go with the other children to their deaths, and hints he was left behind because he is disabled. In Napoli’s story, the townspeople come to believe that Salz, who coughs incessantly, is a witch, since he has not succumbed to the strange disease that has overtaken many. This is because he has not drunk any of the beer made from the ergot-infested rye. Susan P. Bloom, reviewing Breath for Horn Book, called it an “intriguing tale” that could have stood on its own without the Pied Piper story, “so compelling are the portraits of its protagonist and family and the horrific events that beset them.”
Re-imagines fairy tales
Many of Napoli’s books are retellings of classic folktales or myths. These include Zel, the story of Rapunzel, and Sirena, a romantic twist on the Sirens who were said to have lured Greek sailors to their deaths in the ancient world. Beast reworks the classic Beauty and the Beast story, and adds a language lesson. It begins in Persia in the 1500s, and features a prince who is turned into a lion as punishment. He makes his way to France, where he knows there is a woman, Belle, and a rose garden that will save him. “On this grueling trip the reader feels the prince’s loss of humanity,” noted Bloom in a Horn Book review. The critic also noted that the story turns compelling when Belle finds him in the abandoned castle where he is hiding. The Beast leaves it only to hunt his own food, which repulses him. “Getting past her initial fear, the courageous Belle cleans the Beast’s muzzle of blood,” notes Bloom, and the two read together from The Aeneid, an epic Latin masterpiece from the first century B.C.E. Persian, Arabic, and French words appear elsewhere in the story, and Napoli provides a glossary at the end for readers.
Napoli still teaches at Swarthmore, but also likes to visit schools and meet her young readers in person. She has written books with others, including How Hungry Are You? with mathematician Richard Tchen. With her son, Robert Furrow, she wrote Sly and the Pet Mysteries, which was published in 2004. She has also collaborated with her daughter, Eva, on Bobby the Bonobo, a book about a pet monkey that is scheduled for publication in 2006.